Tips for Surviving Extreme Cold from a World-Class Mountaineer

Top athlete and mountain guide Adrian Ballinger shares crucial advice on staying warm

Winter can be brutal—especially for those of us who enjoy the outdoors and all of the adventure it offers. A little snow and some cooler temperatures won’t keep the most active outdoors people inside, but what about severely cold weather?

This winter, some of us will encounter temperatures in the teens (or lower) when we leave our homes and others might travel to some seriously cold places in search of recreation—either way, the right knowledge and preparation can ensure the best possible outcome.

To spread some of that knowledge, Adrian Ballinger, a world-class mountaineer and top mountain guide has outlined five principles for staying as warm as possible in some of the very worst conditions. Ballinger is the founder and head guide of the internationally acclaimed Alpenglow Expeditions, which has helped more than 100 clients successfully summit Everest, Lhotse (the 4th tallest mountain in world), Manaslu (8th tallest), and Cho Oyu (6th tallest) in the last 10 years. His own athletic achievements are just as impressive—he’s the only American who has skied two 8,000 meter peaks, was the first person to ski Manaslu and in 2011 became the first person to summit three 8,000 meter peaks in only 3 weeks (Everest twice and Lhotse once).

Whether you’re scaling some of the tallest mountains in the world or simply fighting the plummeting temperatures on your outdoor travels, take a look at Ballinger’s advice for keeping warm.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Hydration and Nutrition

When in extreme cold, like Antarctica, keeping your system stoked with food and fluids is key to staying warm—in fact, it’s equally as important as wearing adequate clothing. Travel with foods that are high in carbohydrates such as crackers, dried fruit and candy. Carbohydrates provide the most immediate source of usable energy, and are thus invaluable when you are traveling in the cold. Often when you’re exposed to extremely low temperatures, you won’t feel thirst as strongly or as immediately as you would in a temperate environment. This doesn’t mean that you’re drinking as much as you need to. Make marks on your water bottle if you need to and ensure that you’re maintaining consistent hydration by reaching those marks every hour. Additionally, when you’re traveling with a beverage, avoid storing it in a Camelback-style pouch with a long tube, which runs the risk of freezing quickly.

Beverages to Beware

Drinking beverages with alcohol will cause your body to lose heat at a significantly increased rate, which is especially dangerous when the wind chill outside is sending temperatures into the negative values. This heat loss is additionally dangerous because it is particularly difficult to judge; alcohol consumption will make it harder to recognize when you are getting colder, creating the illusion that you have improved your condition when, in fact, the opposite is true. During an arctic front stick to beverages such as herbal teas, which will warm you up without putting you in a dangerous situation.

Layer and Shed

Instead of relying on one heavy overcoat to stay warm, make sure to outfit yourself with a number of layers ranging from undershirts to heavier coats. In addition to better insulating and retaining your body heat, wearing layers will allow you to remove some clothing as you naturally produce more heat while exerting yourself. Shedding layers will minimize the amount that you sweat, which is crucial because of the danger that sweating poses; once your body becomes wet from sweat, you can quickly catch a chill when the sweat cools down and begins to freeze.

Loosen Up

Although it may be tempting to wear tight clothing and tie your boots tightly to create the illusion of being better outfitted for the weather, it is imperative that you select looser alternatives. Tight clothing will reduce circulation of warm blood to your extremities and this decreased blood flow will cause you to become colder at an alarming rate when you’re exposed to the elements. Wearing looser clothing won’t make you colder—in fact, it will allow warm blood to circulate quicker and more thoroughly through your body, and better insulate the heat that this process generates.

Mentality is Key

Although the first four tips on the list are decidedly physical, it’s extremely important not to count out the impact of maintaining a positive mentality. Remaining upbeat and confident (while not overconfident) when traveling in extremely cold weather will keep your mind off of the negative aspects of exposure to extreme cold. Staying positive in the face of low temperatures will provide you with that extra burst of strength to keep moving and generate more insulating heat.


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